The creation of Catalyst in Kendall Square was spurred by the 2009 closure of acclaimed Four Seasons fine dining restaurant Aujourd'hui, where William Kovel was chef de cuisine. The layoff led Kovel to take the leap into opening his own restaurant, a two-year project that culminated in Catalyst's opening one year ago. Kovel's past culinary experiences on both the East and West Coast as well as in London influence the European-tinged American cuisine here, which also has a focus on local, sustainable ingredients. Kovel spoke with Eater of the challenges and rewards of the first year in business, from the opening of the patio to electric ghosts to the upcoming season of sweetbreads and offal.
Does it feel like it has been a year? No, it doesn't. It feels like we just opened yesterday. It really does. It's been an amazing experience, and it's just flown by. I think one of the reasons it flew by is that we're having so much fun.
How did the idea for Catalyst first come about? Aujourd'hui closed in 2009 and I started to say, "I want to open my own restaurant." I wanted to do this on my own and build a concept that was really chef-driven, so I started looking around for spaces and fell in love with Kendall Square. This project was actually over two years in the making. We found this space before even Area Four was open, before they signed. It was really new. We started developing it, and it took a lot of work, including a lot of architectural work. That's how it started. Leaving Aujourd'hui was really the catalyst to open my own business.
So is that where the name came from? Yes, it is. Well, there are a couple different references to catalysts. We're in a great, great hub of biotech and life sciences here in Kendall Square, and Aujourd'hui closing was the catalyst. You get laid off, you're going to bounce back.
How did the opening go? The opening was great. Everyone has different stories about openings, but we didn't have any horror stories. We had a great staff, a great management team - some are still with us - and our servers, our cooks, they were all very excited to open. It's a big family here. It was great.
How have you felt about the reviews? Good. I wake up every day trying to improve Catalyst and just make people happy - that's our goal here. It's about the guests, people coming in and having a great experience. When I read a review that has some negative points or criticism, it makes me want to work harder and try to make them happy next time they come in. I figure it's an opportunity.
Did you make any major changes during the year? We've expanded. We initially didn't open the patio due to the weather. In mid-September, the weather was kind of rough last year. It rained a lot. I think we've gotten more comfortable in our environment here. We were just opening and it's a very large space, so we wanted to take it slow, which we did, and it was the right decision. But now we have the patio and a great patio menu for the summer - fun things like steak frites, profiteroles, great beers. And now we're kind of evolving, hosting a lot of great groups, like business groups, cocktail receptions - it's really a happening place. It's great.
Any big plans for the coming year? Well, I just had a daughter. She's amazing, but everyday I'm just going to work on improving something and thinking about every dish we put out, stepping up service, giving our regular guests something new to look forward to. This is my passion. I love cooking, I love serving people. It's what gets me up every day.
Any bizarre happenings over the course of the year? Our lights are very custom, and they have a mind of their own. All of a sudden our lights will either black out during the middle of service or they'll flicker for an unknown reason. Maybe there's a surge in the building. There'll be days when I'm on the pass, and I'll look over and I can just see it flickering, and I know people are looking, and it drives me crazy, but it's just an electrical kind of ghost. Sometimes you can't figure it out.
Have you put anything on the menu that isn't ordered as much as you'd hope? We do a lot of dishes like that. I think [chef de cuisine] Anthony [Mazzotta] and I conceptually think about things that we'll do, and we'll put it on, and maybe it doesn't sell as well as we want. We do more of those dishes coming up in the fall. For me, the fall and into the winter are a little bit more adventurous times, getting into offal and more serious braised cuts of meat. Soon we start doing some sweetbreads for the first time. We've never done offal, we've never done sweetbreads. We're going to play around with foie gras for the first time, so we're kind of pushing that envelope. We're not doing stuff extremely out of the box; we're just trying to challenge diners to be a little more adventurous.
If you could go back to the beginning of the year and give yourself a piece of advice, what would it be? Breathe. [He laughs.] It's going to be ok. Honestly there are times that I wake up in the middle of the night and say, "I gotta be there. I gotta be there." My wife tells me that I don't have to work six days a week, 13 services, expedite all the time. I have a fantastic team. They are the backbone of this restaurant. I'm fortunate that they're here, and I don't need to expedite every single day, week, year. I love to, though.